College football's next phenom

LSU freshman RB Leonard Fournette is ready to take the SEC by storm

Updated: August 24, 2014, 9:18 AM ET
By David Ching | ESPN.com

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Like many in his football-crazed hometown of New Orleans, Elliott Porter knew of Leonard Fournette before the young running back had even reached high school.

A superstar from the city's rec leagues, Fournette's legend had begun to spread years before he ever became the nation's most heavily recruited football prospect.

"He and my brother were in the same grade and I went to one of his games. It was really a man amongst boys," said Porter, a senior center who is now Fournette's teammate at LSU. "He didn't get much bigger from that because he was huge back then. I was like, 'Really? That's really an eighth-grade kid?'"

Since then, little has changed for Fournette. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, he's still bigger than many of those he competes against. He's still stronger than most, and LSU coach Les Miles has already speculated that the freshman might be the fastest player on an incredibly athletic roster.

No wonder Miles could barely contain his enthusiasm when the Tigers held their first preseason practice earlier this month. The Tigers worked out in only helmets and shorts at first, and Miles couldn't wait to see how his prized recruit would fare once the team donned full pads later in the week.

"That's kind of like having Tiger Woods on a golf course with a putter," Miles said. "You just want to see him tee off, don't you? Well, we have to put pads on before we can see him tee off."

It wasn't the first time Miles invoked a legend when talking about his young phenom. At SEC media days, he used Michael Jordan's name when describing Fournette's desire to be great.

LSU fans share Miles' excitement, as the wait of more than six months to see Fournette is nearly over. The No. 13 Tigers face No. 14 Wisconsin on Aug. 30.

"That's all I've been thinking about, just getting my first time playing at the collegiate level," Fournette said. "So I'm just ready."

By this point, Fournette is no stranger to this level of attention.

After his 255-yard effort in a nationally televised win against state powerhouse John Curtis Christian last season, he earned praise from New Orleans legends like Peyton Manning and Lil Wayne.

Fournette became the first player in Louisiana history to be named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year twice, rushing for 7,619 yards and 88 touchdowns in his career and garnering numerous Adrian Peterson comparisons along the way.

Arizona Cardinals star Tyrann Mathieu, who preceded Fournette at New Orleans' St. Augustine High School and was a Heisman Trophy finalist as an LSU sophomore, told Sports Illustrated Fournette might also end up in New York City for the Heisman ceremony. As a freshman.

Nobody seems to doubt that Fournette will become a star at LSU. The only question is how quickly he will join the likes of Marshall Faulk, Warrick Dunn, Kevin Faulk, Matt Forte and Joe McKnight among the best backs to emerge from the talent-rich state of Louisiana.

"The fact that he's got all this stuff about him, ESPN doing specials on him, people writing books about him -- I'm pretty sure that's what's happening -- it's a lot of pressure," said LSU fullback Connor Neighbors, whom Fournette listed as one of his mentors on the team, along with senior tailbacks Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard. "Sometimes you've just got to put that behind you, and he's done that."

The enormous hype surrounding his debut does not seem to have fazed the freshman at all. As has been the case since his rec-league days, everyone around Fournette offers overflowing praise about his capabilities, and yet he isn't particularly interested in receiving extra attention. He even concedes he would prefer to follow Magee and Hilliard than start immediately.

"You look at how he has handled the hype and you see him laugh and wrestle and talk to the guys, there's no prima donna about him," LSU running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson said. "He's a stone-cold football player who just wants to enjoy his college experience."

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette is one of several standout freshmen expected to get extensive playing time for LSU.

LSU's coaches expected that team-first attitude from Fournette.

"No. 1, he is everything we thought he was and then some," said Cam Cameron, entering his second season as LSU's offensive coordinator after 11 years as a coordinator and head coach in the NFL. "But very seldom do you see guys with that kind of talent have that kind of maturity at an early age and be that team-oriented. You're getting that much praise and you may be as much of a team guy as anybody out there. That's a little uncommon at that age, but I think when you meet his parents and meet his brother, you can see why he's the way he is.

"He's just got to keep doing what he's doing: learn our system and start learning SEC defenses, understand how people are going to come after him, and that's going to be all part of his maturation process as a runner."

Fournette credits his mother, Lory, for her regular reminders about the value of humility.

"My mother, she's a church-going woman," Fournette said. "She texts me a scripture every night and she's kind of the one that helps me a lot. 'Stay humble. Keep God first, Leonard, and everything's going to be all right.' That's an everyday thing from her. Even if she doesn't call me, she'll text me, and if she doesn't text me, she'll call me and give me some encouraging words."

That humility has helped the blue-chip freshman realize he is not yet a complete player, Cameron said. His running ability is one thing, and that's what might someday make Fournette a millionaire in the NFL, but he still must work on his blocking, route-running skills and knowledge of LSU's offense.

Miles has joked that Fournette's recruitment started in the "second semester in the third-grade year." The Wisconsin game is the next chapter in the Legend of Leonard, where anything less than immediate dominance would disappoint the many Louisianans who believe Fournette might be the most talented player in state football history.

Maybe Fournette will share time in LSU's backfield. The Tigers have established a pattern under Miles of splitting carries, after all. And maybe he still must pick up some of the position's finer points. But it's likely only a matter of time before Fournette emerges as the superstar everyone expects.

"There's nothing that he's done that we hadn't seen on tape," Cameron said. "He's like a lot of guys here and a lot of guys in the state of Louisiana: They don't get tired. Most 235-pound running backs get tired. This guy can run all day. ... I knew he was smart, and he's smart. I knew he was tough, and he's tough. I knew he loved football, and he loves football. But I didn't know that he could just run all day."

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